Zimbabwe: Social Media's Role in Local Polls

editorial

SYRIA has recently become one of the hottest spots on earth and a centre of world attention for its protracted unrest that has degenerated into civil war. Armed conflict, costing more lives with each passing day, has not subsided since March 2011 and on Tuesday a pro-government television station was attacked by suspected "armed terrorist groups".

Syria is not the first country to witness a wave of mass uprisings as protests first swept Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain -- a phenomenon dubbed "the Arab Spring".

In all countries, "the Spring" began in much the same manner, with large-scale protests in the streets signifying the people's dissatisfaction with autocratic regimes. This begs the question: How was it possible to get the support of so many people in countries where there was strict state control over mass media; and what lessons can Zimbabwe draw ahead of the next polls?

In today's world where the Internet is no longer a privilege and is affordable to most, a new powerful tool for influencing the population has since arrived: social media networks.

The term "tweeter revolutions" has been coined. Now, when the audience of Facebook and Twitter networks account for 800 million people, it has become convenient to use this channel to spread democratic views and organise mass rallies. While communicating in social networks, people often fondly think of the information and any rumour instantly acquires details and spreads among users as an undeniable fact.

In essence, each user becomes a participant in "cyber warfare".

Since the advent of social media, the usage of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc has significantly increased in Zimbabwe, especially among the youths who constitute a large part of the voting populace.

The media landscape has experienced sea changes which are beyond the reach and capacity of repressive state machinery, such as that still existing in Zimbabwe in the form of Aippa and Posa. For instance, people do not need to notify the police that they intend to hold a political gathering; they can simply communicate using Facebook. There can thus be rapid information transfer and exchanges, much to the chagrin of regimes that seek to control masses by feeding them with fibs, partisan dosages of poisonous information and propaganda through state-controlled media.

What's more, distance is not a factor as people can communicate. Social media provide proximity.

The results of elections since 2000 in Zimbabwe have adequately demonstrated people can no longer be starved of information as technology has pushed back the restrictive boundaries. Information and its communication is now available in real time.

Within seconds, electoral results can now be circulated throughout the country and the world, thereby increasing transparency and exposing electoral fraud, if any.

It therefore goes without saying that whoever adapts better to social media between the two major political parties, Zanu PF and the MDC-T, will enjoy a major head-start and advantage because the majority of Zimbabweans are exposed to smart gadgets that enable real-time mass communication.

The same gadgets have played a pivotal role in the US and elsewhere where the incumbents have taken full advantage of them.

However, it so far seems the MDC-T is ahead of Zanu PF regarding the use of social media.

The cyber highway has penetrated even the rural areas and information can now be gleaned readily in Zimbabwe with almost two million of the six million mobile phone users enjoying such access.

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia where Arab youths posted anti-government slogans on Facebook and Twitter. Co-ordinated protests followed, resulting in President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali being ejected from the country.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It has become increasingly evident that concerned youths the world over now protest using social media and Zimbabwe will be no exception as it heads for crucial elections -- for the first time with a significant portion of the population using various platforms independent of the state to receive and get their message out.

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